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“A Common Man with an Uncommon Desire to Succeed” – A Must See Art Exhibition

by | Jun 11, 2019 | Bottom Left Box, News, Top Left Box

The works by the late Josh Harris ’94 are on display in the McKay Atrium of the Wall Academic Center. The exhibition is expected to be at Davidson through this Fall.


Davidson College and the Davidson College Art Department are pleased to present works by Joshua T. Harris at the twenty-fifth reunion of his own Class of 1994 at Davidson. This exhibition takes its title from the commemorative coin for the annual Joshua T. Harris Memorial Golf Classic in Pinehurst, N.C. Since 2011 the tournament has collected more than $1.5 million to help Navy SEALs and their families.

Navy SEAL Josh Harris died in Afghanistan in 2008. [screen capture from]

The exhibition offers thirteen images by Josh. His artistic output includes works, many of which are untitled. They span the time from when he was an Art Major (with a Specialization in Studio Art) at Davidson, to studies in Prague and New York, and to graduate studies in architecture at UNCC. Some of his works were created after college in “The Blue Barn” on the land where he grew up in Lexington, N.C. Fortunately, his parents Sam, a physician, and Evelyn, a thespian, kept more than 60 of his works there. It is through their generosity and goodwill we are able to honor Josh in this special time when many of his classmates return to campus and can see a selection of his art in various media. The Harris family interests in the human body, theatre, and the common good of the community became fundamental dynamics of Josh’s life. At his funeral in August 2008 it came as no surprise to anyone in the area that even the movie house marquee in Lexington was changed to honor their fallen son and a family so important to the community.

A quiet, handsome, self-driven athlete and aesthete, Josh came to Davidson as a highly sought-after, but undersized football player. His academic interests focused on Studio Art and Art History including a semester in France with the Davidson art history program centered in Paris.

Josh especially admired the confrontive images by Pablo Picasso, the mystical splatters of Jackson Pollock, ambiguous female images by Willem de Kooning, and the mosaic forms of Marc Chagall and Georges Roualt, echoes of whom are found in his multi-layered works which focus on the existential nature of the human figure, often in liminal states. In particular, Josh’s work has a recurrent theme of the saltimbanque, a nomadic, acrobatic, circus figure who wanders, fractured and often alone in a desolate landscape of the modern world. In their introspection and sometimes aggressive gestures, these images remain nevertheless structured, tactile self-portraits of primitive urges of defiance and survival. But they also offer hope without yielding to sentimentality and nostalgia in a moment when interest in figurative painting was beginning to return in the abstract face of Greenbergian modernism.

One of Josh’s Davidson classmates looks at one of his paintings.

In short, Josh was a confident risk-taker on the field and in the studio. He defined himself and continued to challenge himself in the SEALs excruciatingly rigorous training programs in California and Virginia. In 2018, the Davidson football team went to the Navy’s SEAL training complex in Coronado, California and took the time to see and honor the memorial that includes Josh and his fellow SEALs killed in the line of duty.

Josh once told his father than he “would do this job for the country even if they did not pay me.” Eventually, Josh was invited to join the “Navy’s most elite counter-terrorism unit, Seal Team SIX” whose mottos are “Show Up,” “Never Give Up,” “All In, All the Time,” and “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday.”

That he embodied these ideals is seen in these works of art where he seems to wrestle with the figure and in the over 100 secret missions in which he boldly participated to make a better world. His rugged individualism is seen in his willingness to “be in the gap.” This term, “the gap” as conceived by Issac Bailey ’95, acclaimed author and like Josh, a member of the Davidson football family, also describes the necessity and willingness to stand up for the less fortunate no matter the situation. Sitting on the sidelines simply would not do. This courage is just what is demanded of both the artist and the warrior. . .a true avant-garde.

The exhibition includes 13 pieces of Josh’s art.

President Theodore Roosevelt, who saved American college football from being outlawed at the beginning of the twentieth century, once gave a speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic” on April 23, 1910 at the Sorbonne in Paris (not far from where Josh and the Davidson art history group lived for a semester.) The most memorable section of the speech is known as the “Man in the Arena.” This stunning encomium has been used in many venues and on different occasions, but perhaps no one represents the power of this image more poignantly than Josh, whose legacy lives on in his paintings, charcoals, watercolors, collages, and pen & ink drawings. . .as well as in the lives of many others.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Studying new subjects in the arena of the classroom, challenging larger opponents on the football field, confidently and swiftly piloting through the French countryside, confronting himself and painting history on these canvases, volunteering for the Special Olympics, or fearlessly crossing a river to protect his comrades. . .Josh was and is still “The Man in the Arena,” and “A Common Man with an Uncommon Desire to Succeed.”

                                                                                                 Shaw Smith, Joel O. Conarroe Professor of Art History


Thanks to Sam and Evelyn Harris for loaning these works from their personal collection. We are grateful to Dr. C. Shaw Smith for co-curating this exhibition and penning a lovely tribute to Josh. Thanks also to Lia Newman who helped co-curate the exhibition, and to Allison Tolbert & David Sackett who installed the show. Thanks to Clayton Venhuizen for transporting the works. Much thanks also to Jane Campbell ’87 and Nate Casey ’17 for keeping Josh’s memory alive for Davidson students.

Click here to view more News of Davidson photos of the exhibition. 

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